Honoring Dustin

When the violent crime of drunk driving enters your life, everything in your world is changed. For each person who has lost a loved one or been injured by the acts of a drunk driver, the path is different. In my case, it was the loss of my son Dustin. He was only 18 years old. Dustin was a strikingly handsome red head with freckles. When he entered a room, everyone would laugh and smile because of his captivating personality.

But all of that promise was snuffed out because someone chose to drink and drive. It was a violent crash as are they all. Dustin was a passenger in the back seat of a car that flipped over in mid-air and landed upside down in a river. Dustin was unable to get out and drowned.

After the shock and anguish of the loss, came months of negotiating a judicial system of which we had little knowledge. Fortunately for us, in Connecticut, unlike some other states, there are victim’s rights and we were kept well informed of the case by a caring prosecuting attorney and victim advocate. Still, it took ten months of investigating before an arrest warrant was issued. Then it was nearly a year of delays and continuances before the case was adjudicated.

Then there was the civil action which lasted another two years. It was nearly four years of our lives dealing with attorneys and judges to reach justice. But what is justice when your son has been killed by a senseless and completely preventable act? When the courtroom activity was completed, some people would ask us if we then had closure. There is no such thing as closure. We think about Dustin every day and miss him terribly. At every family gathering there is someone missing. At every Thanksgiving, there’s an empty chair. Closure? Whatever that is, we don’t have it.

A few years later when the woman who killed our son was released from prison, she violated every condition of probation including verifiable community service, caused a three-car crash while driving without a valid license and went back to prison for three more years. For us, that meant re-entering the judicial system. Not only that, Facebook information had been used in the sentencing portion of the Violation of Probation hearing, causing the defense to appeal.

That meant time at Connecticut’s Appellate Court. After upholding the decision, it was appealed again and the case was taken by the Connecticut Supreme Court. The original sentence was upheld and it was ruled that Facebook is acceptable for use in the sentencing portion of trials. Not only had our son been gone for years, but years of our lives had been taken away by the constant focus on the legal process.

It was at some point during that process that I became involved in Mothers Against Drunk Driving. I wish I had done it sooner. They were always there for me, helping me understand each step of the process. But they were also there as friends, caring about me and what I was going through because they understood.

How you go on after a loss is different for each and every person. I remember that for my husband and me, we felt we had a choice. We could either continue to be victims for the rest of our lives or do something to make a difference. We chose the latter. We joined the MADD State Advisory Board and volunteered at a variety of events including a Walk Like MADD for Dustin. A short time later, I became a member of the MADD National Board of Directors. My husband worked on drunk driving laws in our state, which now has an all-offender ignition interlock and DUI child endangerment laws. In 2015, I became the National President of MADD.

To honor our son, we created a summer camp for kids called “Dustin’s Place” that welcomed more than 200 people every day into a world of swimming, fishing, kayaking, caving, archery, arts and crafts and much more. It was a joy to see the fun the children had, knowing that the experience would impact the rest of their lives. And knowing that Dustin’s name would be a part of their fondest memories.

My suggestion to anyone who suffers the horror of the violent crime of drunk driving is to be a part of something greater than yourself. Become involved in helping others. Make a difference. Mothers Against Drunk Driving is a place where differences are made. You can volunteer at events in your area that educate people about this violent crime. You can talk to your legislators to make drunk driving laws in your state stronger. They will listen to you because you have a story that is meaningful. You can show your support for law enforcement as they work every day to keep the roads safer You can also help support MADD’s mission by making a donation.

You will also have the option to raise money for MADD’s mission in honor of your loved one. If you raise or donate $2,500 through your online tribute, you’ll have the option of adding a leaf, engraved with a message of your choice, to the Tree of Life display located on the walls of the MADD National Headquarters. We will also send you a replica of your personalized leaf to keep at home.

Please help us in any way you can to ensure that one day, there will be NO MORE VICTIMS®.

I will remember all of you, you are in my heart each and every day,

Your friend,

Colleen Sheehey-Church, MADD National President

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